What’s wrong with education today?

We’re all familiar with a depressing litany of complaints about education today–disaffected students, parents abandoning the public system, teacher burn-out and turnover, poor test scores, failure to keep up with technological changes, unjust schools more than 50 years after the Brown decision, inadequate and unequal funding, and lack of relevancy to either the current life of students or their future as citizens and workers. One might add the tendency to blame all other problems–crime, drugs, economic decline, moral failure, poor health, and more–on the schools.

There are many issues related to even this incomplete list of complaints, with neither a single cause nor an easy cure. But one issue that demands more attention is how we conceive the very process of teaching and learning. We all have a tendency to expect education to follow the pattern we experienced as students in formal settings, while ignoring what we’ve learned as participants in life. We assume that conventional pedagogy is the natural order of things, perhaps the only possible order.

While there is great variation across age levels, subject areas, and organizations, we all know the routine of conventional pedagogy. It includes elements such as:

  • The learning objectives include content delivery and skills development. There is at least an implicit scope and sequence, meaning that these objectives can be specified in advance, have a well-defined sequence, and clear boundaries, as in “this course covers British, but not American, literature.” The questions underlying the outlined study are usually implicit.
  • The identification of learning objectives allows the use of pre-set methods and materials. These may be realized in a syllabus, a textbook, curriculum guides, or increasingly, online learning modules.
  • Response modes for the students are limited, defined by structured classroom discussion, specific assignments, and tests.
  • Discussion is teacher-driven, as in the familiar initiation-response-evaluation (IRE) interaction.
  • The pedagogy relies on external evaluation of learning, by the teacher rather than the student, or more often the case, by standardized testing procedures.

When learning activities are divorced from ordinary experience, fragmented into short blocks of time, and framed within narrowly-defined disciplines, the learner is unlikely to engage, remember, or apply the knowledge supposedly conveyed. Teaching becomes a chore, and schooling becomes irrelevant to the actual life of the students, much less to the needs of the larger society. It is difficult in that situation to foster the development of critical, socially-engaged intelligence, one that might in turn be able to transform schools and the society they reflect.

But there are philosophical blinders, institutional pressures, and practical challenges which constrain learning in exactly those ways. How can we provide learning opportunities that are connected to the learner’s needs and interests, relevant to life both within and beyond schooling, challenging and engaging? How can we conceive disciplines in a way that enlarges learning rather than limits it? How can we make the best use of texts, multimedia, computers, field experiences, dialogues, and all the other media for learning?


Bruce, Bertram C. (2009). Must we obsess about student testing?

Chapin, Tom, & Forster, John. Not on the test

Gatto, John Taylor. Schooling is not education. (in four parts)

Illich, Ivan (1973). Why we must disestablish school. In Ivan Illich, Deschooling society. London: Marion Boyars.

Ladson-Billings, G. (2006, April 9). From the achievement gap to the education debt: Understanding achievement in U.S. schools. American Educational Research Association presidential address, San Francisco.

School of Barbiana (1969). Letter to a Teacher. Tuscany, Italy.

Wesch, Michael in collaboration with 200 students at Kansas State University. A vision of students today.

4 thoughts on “What’s wrong with education today?

  1. Very well stated, although incomplete in its delivery. There is more available at http://www.school-matters.net, where I have posted your blog from today as a Daily Feature. The problem with education is shared by everyone: the education elites who make policy; the teachers who kowtow to what they know cannot work; AND the students who are lackadaisical (at best) in their attempts to conform.


  2. Pingback: One of an Infinite Means to Approach Science, Education, and the Universe: Part 4 – Science Education | Logan Petlak

  3. You’ve highlighted one of the major dilemmas for teachers today. I obviously don’t know your full situation, but I agree that you can’t fail to give the pupils access to the currency by which they’re going to be judged, regardless of whether those measurements are valid. At the same time, there’s a larger responsibility to help them develop their lives beyond the school.

    Many people have addressed this problem, including the references in the post itself and the Int’l J of Progressive Education http://inased.org/ijpeci.htm. Educators such as Cathy Fosnot, Roland Barth, Lisa Delpit, bell hooks, and others acknowledge the dilemma and offer some answers, but no easy solution.

    One strategy, as Gerald Graff suggests, is to bring students into these debates. Help them understand why they need to learn the tools of success as defined by the system, and why, at the same time, that can be only a small part of their learning.


  4. I am one of those disillusioned teachers in a system where the pupils’ education ends with a national exam. If we stop teaching towards the exam we fail the pupils by not giving them the best chance of getting a certificate that opens doors for them to further education. If we keep teaching towards the exam we fail the pupils by “schooling” them in a way that has no relevance to their lives. What is the answer? Can you suggest where I can find readings that will help?


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